Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Crafting a New Coaching Pedagogy

In light of my previous post being re-blogged and discussed among radical educators, I have written its spiritual successor to introduce a new pedagogical role for coaches. I do not waiver from my initial position that coaches are indispensable to their teams' culture and inexorably linked to the success of their teams' performance over time. In this piece, I argue that an essential undertaking of a coach should be to build leaders among men, or more aptly, coaches among athletes. Given the theoretical implications and intellectual treatment of my previous post, I have deliberately chosen to write this current piece in less of my usual tone as an entertaining and lyrical blogger, but more as a calculated scholar. This is the thoughtful song delivered a cappella in an otherwise bass-heavy, thoroughly danceable album. My operational framework for this piece draws upon the organizational legacy of Malcolm X and the case study of Jeremy Lin and the current 2013-14 Houston Rockets team.

As it stands, the current standard of coaching at the highest levels is top-down, resembling a militaristic organization equipped with its own parallel culture, procedures, and discipline. Communication is entirely vertical. When a coach speaks, the athlete listens. When a coach commands, the athlete obeys. Early this April, when ESPN aired footage of Mike Rice physically and verbally abusing his players, Americans appeared to be in shock at how something so inherently fun to watch and to follow during the month of March could be so brutal and psychotic behind the scenes. Like the SEC placing Goldman Sachs alone on trial for the 2008 financial crisis, Rice was singled out from all corners, most notably the New Jersey state government, culminating in his termination. In the imagination of the public, Rice embodied the degradation of the profession under only the most atypical and the extremest of circumstances.

Though some of his methods of discipline were unconventional, Rice's power relation to his athletes and his freedom to impose his will on players are far from anomalous in the profession. Similar to any other worker under capitalist social relations, when an athlete becomes part of the team, they relinquish their rights to their physical body. This is true in both the processes of production and punishment. To train for the consistent production of victories, the athlete's limbs are manipulated and appendages are outstretched to exact specific physiological motions routinely. At the most basic level, practices are designed to build muscle memory and make permanent certain footwork (the jab step, lateral defensive slides). Conversely, when the athlete's body fails to perform a certain way, the body is subjected to punishment (running Monsters or suicides, wall sits, or in Mike Rice's case, ball chucking). Most importantly, athletes are stripped of their agency and the full use of their mental capacity--reduced to cogs in the machine--when their bodies are externally synchronized to a coach's playbook.

Despite what I laid out as the standard pedagogy of coaching today, coaching is an indispensable means to sustained victory. Please refer to my previous post for reasons why I believe so, including the coach's role in reigning in the excesses of superstars, crafting a team orientation, building a culture of effort and attitude, and strategizing on the fly to adapt to the opponent's playbook.

Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity

Malcolm X's vision for his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which was never brought to fruition due to his assassination, serves as an analogous vision for a new coaching pedagogy. Influenced by the state socialist revolutions that swept the Third World, Malcolm's idea of Black Nationalism evolved from an internal African American struggle for political, cultural, and economic independence in the form of a separate state to a Pan-African, internationalist struggle whereby African Americans were part of the majority (and crucially no longer minority) of oppressed peoples struggling for land and independence. Once he formally broke from the Nation of Islam, he constructed the secularist OAAU based on this internationalist conception of struggle to prepare African Americans of all stripes to train for the impending revolution in the heart of the beast.

Of relevance is Malcolm's organizational vision, which radically departed from the Civil Rights organizations of the immediate years before (1960-1963) and the Black Power organizations to immediately follow (1965-1969). These organizations were dominated by male chauvinism and hierarchical structure. The latter proved especially potent in the undoing of these organizations. With so much concentration of power in the hands of a few leaders, both the Kennedy-Johnson administration and the FBI were given easy and obvious targets for co-optation and repression respectively. Like any good coach innovating and refining their tactics and philosophies, Malcolm was a man of constant learning and growth. He freed himself of these two organizational pitfalls. Upon his return from his second trip to Africa in 1964, he stressed that "Africa would not be free until it frees its women" (*this quote, on a side note, is much more shocking and blasphemous than the Mike Rice revelation due to Malcolm's significant Muslim following). To succeed in revolution, Malcolm realized that the OAAU needed democratic decision-making, gender equality, and a focus on leadership development. The OAAU, and by extension, the movement, could only grow if more leaders were trained who took to the streets and in turn, reached more youth and workers. Additionally, numerically increasing the amount of leaders would dually prevent the government from any divide-and-conquer strategy and would organically create checks and balances within the organization to reign in the excesses of one or two individualistic, electorally-minded leaders. Malcolm's visionary genius was ahead of his time, and these twin pitfalls still characterize most radical and progressive organizations today.

Malcolm's shortcoming was that he did not realize his own role as the charismatic head coach in the OAAU. While he was abroad on his trips to Africa and the Middle East to build connections with and emphasize commonalities of the African American struggle to Third World state socialists, he allowed the membership of the OAAU to enact his vision of democratic participation. Rife with interpersonal conflict and indecision, the organization failed to move forward. The nails were already in OAAU's coffin before Malcolm's assassination. Malcolm needed to guide his membership, most of whom joined due to his charisma, to the realization of becoming leaders of a new model of democratic organization. Moreover, he needed to convince his future leaders on the merits of democracy, collectivity, and gender equality in order for them to carry on these tasks autonomously and willingly when Malcolm moved on.

Jeremy Lin and the 2013-2014 Houston Rockets

In this final section, I turn to the current Houston Rockets team to illustrate the potential benefit of athletes as coaches on the floor. On paper, the Houston Rockets have a team that can win it all. They have a top 5 scorer in shooting guard James Harden and a top 3 center in Dwight Howard. However, these two superstars lack the sustained discipline to play with a team orientation. To complicate matters, Hall of Fame inductee Coach Kevin McHale is unable to reign in the excesses of either superstar and is content with winning games through the performances of his two stars. Of course, I deliberately emphasize games and not championship because despite how the Rockets perform this regular season, they will not go far in the postseason with this type of undisciplined mentality under their current coach.

James Harden is a superstar who needs to have the ball at all times, which is uncharacteristic of shooting guards, since point guards are the playmakers and facilitators on most teams . Coach McHale does not utilize his point guards in this traditional role, and allows Harden instead to freely dominate the ball and decide on shooting or passing the basketball. This is problematic because Harden is currently shooting at an abysmal 27% from 3-point range, which is his go-to shot on many occasions. What makes his shooting percentage so low is because his shot is predictable and is usually guarded tightly, so he ends up shooting with a defender's handing in his face. Coach McHale hopes that Harden will make plays for his teammates, but this conceptualization entails Harden driving to the hoop, and then passing to his open teammate when a second defender collapses to defend against Harden's layup. There are two problems with this "drive-and-kick" strategy. First, Harden is only an average ball handler and a sloppy passer and turns the ball over most among the current Rockets. Second, the offensive formation is essentially stagnant (with four of Harden's teammates stationary looking for a pass), so even if a second defender collapses on Harden's drive, a third defender can quickly predict where the pass heads and defend the pass recipient. Other NBA teams stacked with superstars will still run plays and have strategies that are designed to facilitate offball movement (the movement of other role [non-superstar] players to get them in open spots where they have the highest percentage shots if they receive the pass). In other words, while superstars can create their own shots, plays are drawn up to involve their teammates to get open in spots where they'll have the highest success.

In contrast to the strategic incompetence of Coach McHale, his player Jeremy Lin possesses high basketball IQ and sees the floor like a true point guard, or coach on the floor. I speculate that Jeremy's high IQ stems from being the first and only Asian American basketball player in the NBA. It's a survival mechanism to ensure that he can thrive despite the change of scenery. Early in his NBA career, he was tossed around from team to team like an old rag doll. As such, he's been forced to play under coaches with very different systems, playbooks, and philosophies. He's had to quickly pick up the versatility of the point guard position and thus knows the game on a very strategic level. His roles in the past have included being a spot-up shooter with limited minutes (Golden State), being an aggressive Pick-and-Roll starter (New York), and now being an all-around sixth man (Houston). Because he primarily plays with the Houston second unit (he is a sixth man, not a starter), he is not impeded by the selfishness of his superstar teammates.

His smarts really come through on this second unit. Though the playbook (dictated by McHale) is still nonexistent, with Lin on the floor, his second unit teammates naturally move around a lot more without the ball because they know that Lin's first instinct is to look for open teammates. His presence makes his team play unselfishly and smarter. Because he creates for his teammates, Lin only shoots high percentage shots (he doesn't force his shots when defended). Unsurprisingly then, he leads the entire team in Field Goal percentage at an astonishing 54% (this is better than Dwight Howard's, who, as a center, only shoots within three feet of the hoop). While racking up assists, Lin is also the second highest scorer on the team. I want to emphasize that his team-orientation is infectious: the second unit of the Rockets routinely outplay the first. When he broke through in New York two years ago, Linsanity was more than Jeremy Lin. It was about how he elevated his team to play together as a unit, believe in each other, have fun in the process, and win games.

Lin's smarts are rare. I believe that they were developed through struggling against racial barriers and adapting his play to different styles for different teams, which forced him become an analytical general on the floor. A head coach, however, can expedite this process by emphasizing mental, analytical, and leadership development among his team.


Hypothetically speaking, what if the NBA had an entire team of team-oriented, high IQ players like Jeremy Lin or Bill Russell, and they faced off against an entire team of statistically superior superstars like James Harden or Wilt Chamberlain? Though the latter will undoubtedly win a few battles, the final victory will go to the adaptive, strategic team of coaches on the floor.

Malcolm's organizational vision highlights the role of the head coach in creating leaders among men who will, in time, be able to organize in society independent of him. They will appreciate the values of democratic organization, gender equality, internationalism, and revolution on their own merits in contrast to those values under capitalism. The key here is that the pedagogy of Malcolm needed to be intentional for the OAAU to survive and thrive. The case study of Jeremy Lin reveals the championship potential of a team of coaches on the floor and unselfish players. Despite the lack of a cohesive playbook from Coach McHale, Jeremy's informal coaching, through his mere presence on the floor, inspires his teammates to help each other get open for Jeremy's passes. In this way, the Rockets' second unit are reclaiming their bodies and acting with collective agency. To synthesize the lessons from both Malcolm and Jeremy, more leaders like Jeremy need to be created, but it takes a specific type of coach armed with this pedagogy--one with the vision, strategy, flexibility, and charisma of Malcolm--to reach revolutionary championship level.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Legend of the South End, Mr. Lee

With the exception of our varsity starting point guard, the best jump shooter at our high school is not on the basketball team. Clearly, this distinction belongs to me. I'm the real-life version of an NBA 2K video game mash-up between Stephen Curry and Jerry West. Splasshhhh! Joking aside, the top two shooters at our school are a duo of Somalian brothers who shoot the lights out from any range under any pressure. You just can't guard them, and if you try to put a hand in their face, then prepare for great embarrassment. Like the current backcourt of the Golden State Warriors, these brothers aren't just catch-and-shoot shooters, but possess the dynamism to beat a defender off the dribble, power their way into the lane, or step back and create their own shot. What's more, these Somalian brothers started playing basketball in middle school, in contrast to most of the basketball players on our team, who began playing while still in Pampers on their Fisher Price set and were reared into fundamentally sound players by the best training programs that top dollar could buy. White privilege. Curious to know the secret behind the brothers' success, I probed into their lives for that elixir, in hope that perhaps my game too could exponentially improve in a short period of time.

Mr. Lee! came the enthusiastic response of one of the brothers. You've got to meet him! All the Lee's whom I've come across over the years have been Asian, but in this case, my common sense resisted the urge to link my past racialized associations with this Mr. Lee. He was probably white like David Lee, but it's possible that, since these brothers lived in the South End, this Lee was black like Spike. No Veryl, he's as Asian as you. Sure, Asian elders existed who coached ping pong or martial arts like Bruce Lee or Mr. Miyagi, but basketball? He had to be shitting me, so I pressed his brother for the real scoop. Nah V, you just don't know. Mr. Lee is a legend in the South. For those ill-acquainted with Seattle, the South End, though somewhat gentrified over recent years, remains home to a substantial population of low-income East African and Southeast Asian immigrants. A lucky few from the South each year, such as these brothers, win the lottery to go to an academically esteemed public school like ours in the North End rather than a neglected neighborhood public school in their own community. With the pressure off of them to join a neighborhood gang, handle a gat and become sharpshooters, these lottery winners aspire to join a school team, handle a basketball and become jump shooters.

The legend goes that Mr. Lee never misses his shots. Now probably in his 70s, generation after generation of Holly Park (a neighborhood in the South End) street ballers have come under his wing. Notoriously known for the Holly Park Crips, an East African gang set, only recently have locals enjoyed the landscape of the neighborhood after gentrifying families brought along comprehensive gang sweeps a few years ago and frequent police monitoring. Unlike the cutthroat exclusivity of gangs, Mr. Lee embodies an Africa Bambaata-esque unity. His presence in the local housing project courts alone inspires commitment to the game of basketball, of which he is the very definition. Much like farmers rising to a rooster's crow, the brothers tell me that while they were in middle school, they would wake up to the sound of string music coming from their nearby project court at the break of dawn. By the time that the boys finished breakfast and arrived at Meany International Middle School in the Central District, Mr. Lee had somehow migrated from that South End project court to Meany, where he would open the gym for a zero hour basketball session before class commenced. Back in their middle school days, Mr. Lee earned his keep as a Bilingual Assistant at Meany, but he earned his reputation for his love of the game. In the darkest of nights and the snowiest of winters, Mr. Lee's court presence never wavered. I've heard it said that passion is contagious. There is no greater proof than in these Somalian brothers who, from literally no experience, ascended to the top of jump shooters in comparatively no time.

How did he teach you to shoot? I asked. Confidence. Mr. Lee taught us Confidence, came their nonchalant response as if it were painfully obvious. With selfish curiosity to improve my own game, I rephrased my question. Confidence, that's cool, but I mean, what specific techniques did he teach you? Different coaches emphasize different techniques, but nearly every single coach breaks down the shot to a science. Some emphasize footwork, balance, and posture. Others emphasize the placement of the ball in the shot pocket, the squaring of the ball to basket, and the follow through. Still others reduce the shot down to focus and the placement of your eye on a specific part of the rim. No V, you're overthinking it. The reason our shot goes in is because we know it will go in. Every single time. You can try to stop me, but I guarantee my shot is going in. As a coach myself, this sentiment is beyond absurd-- it's unthinkable! I devote a significant amount of time in practice on preaching the fundamentals. I tell my players that if they follow through on their shot every time, then they will consistently hit their jumper. I drill, Drill, and DRILL that technique over and over again. But, if it's scientific to develop theory from reality, who am I to say that the tried-and-true words from a Legend is absurd? Perhaps I should be taking notes from the sensei and simplifying my own game.

One rainy evening late last winter, I went to the project court frequented by the Legend. Just as I pictured in my head, raindrops pounded the barren concrete court. Even legends have their limits, I thought to myself. Old age had finally exhausted his chameleon-like adaptability to play in any weather. As the school year closed, one of the brothers surprised me with a video recorded on his phone. I see an image of a basket immediately followed by a swish. The camera pans over from the basket to a right arm following through from the shot, and then finally to the shooter. A small, old Asian man turns his head to the phone and, in boastful fashion, tells me, Coach, that one's for you. It's all about confidence. Tell your team to believe in themselves. You believe in them. Funny, that following summer season, the team I coached was the one to beat in Summer League. Perhaps I had been too quick to dismiss the hocus pocus of the street game.

There's an inside joke that the brothers and I share now whenever we play pick up ball with varsity players at the school. Every time one of our shots go in, the others would yell out Mr. Lee! As all legends do when they reach legendary status, their legacy is passed down to younger generations and transplanted far beyond their original reach. From the South End through the Central District to the North. With less than a second left, he hoists up a miracle from half court. For the win--- it's goooooddd!!! Unbelievable, and they win on the miracle shot! Mr. Lee!!!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dear Crystal,

You'll probably never read this. I hope that one day this reaches you and you do. You probably don't even remember who I am. Honestly, I don't even remember if your name starts with a C or a K. But you're the one person in my life I never got to thank who deserves my genuine gratitude. And it eats away at me like a cancer because thank you's come a dime a dozen. It rolls off my tongue like a personal introduction. Thanks for taking my money and serving me. Thanks for the compliment. Thanks for your help. Thanks for driving. Thanks for spending time with me. Thanks for listening to me. Thanks for kissing me. Thanks for last night. Thanks for everything. And, of course, the occasional thanks for nothing. I say thank you so much, probably above the average of 5,000 per year, that those who know me should question my sincerity when I do say it. But I'll never forget what you did on my behalf on the first day of middle school in Virginia, the act to which I owe the thank you, because no one else, not a single soul, stepped up in a similar way to you in all of my three years there.

I remember it vividly. I moved to the city just one day before. No friends, no foes, didn't know nobody. We had a pep assembly that day, in large part to inculcate school spirit and introduce middle school to us incoming sixth graders, but the only new-blood to get 'hazed' would be me. Because I didn't know anyone and by nature was introverted, I sat alone high up in the nosebleed section of the bleechers. Before the band got going and the cheerleaders got cheering, three boys aggressively approached my position yelling out racial slurs and, when they arrived, pushed me around and continued their taunts. Fucking chink, youse go backa to China. Ching chongy ching chong. One got behind where I sat and put me in a choke-hold. That was the second time I cried in public, and right on cue, kids from the lower sections of the bleacher turned their heads and laughed. I remember looking at a teacher in the lower section, telekinetically crying for help, only to see a chuckle on her face.

Before that day, I never cursed in public, let alone directly at someone else. You'd probably laugh at this statement if we so much as even conversed today, because the one thing I utter more than thank you is an obscenity. I've got no fucking respect for goddamned social norms, pardon my French, s'il vous plait. But during that moment of that day that is now forever engraved in my memory, I managed to mutter a fuck you and to give them my middle finger while fighting the choke-hold and battling my tears. What the fuck did you just say to us? Do you want to fucking die? While this happened and everyone in the lower sections laughed at the entertaining skit, you intervened and told them to stop. Did you hear what he just said to us? He said 'fuck you,' so he deserves what's coming. You unflinchingly responded along the lines that they deserved the fuck you and that they'd better leave now. They listened and left with haste. I'm honestly tearing up as I'm writing this to you right now, because like I said, you were the only person in my entire three years who stood up for me, who stood up against racism while I experienced it. While it's pathetic that no one else came close to my assistance, I'm glad you came through because I know it was the unpopular option and put you on the spot that very moment in front of the entire section of the gym. Because we were in different classes, I don't even remember interacting with you for the rest of middle school, but I wish that we became friends and more importantly, I wish that I had the chance to tell you how much your brave act meant to me.

You see, the remainder of middle school was hell for me. It's funny, now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I frequently encounter people who adamantly dismiss my experience living "in the South." They tell me that it's barely the South and that it's not really Confederate. I distinctly recall, in one of my initial weeks in Virginia, that one of the big news items was a cross burning in a black man's front yard. These Northwesterners are something else, I tell you. Mostly passive aggressive fucks, in contrast to the racists from our childhood state. To a degree, I appreciate the racist honesty of Virginians than the affected "anti-racist" mannerisms of Northwesterners. I would've been a confused motherfucker if I spent my whole life here, blind to institutional racism and forgiving of the occasional epithet.

Virginia genuinely fucked with my head. My neighborhood in Virginia taught me how to internalize racism to survive. Down my street lived a popular kid from our school, Josh O'Grady. If you don't remember his face, I'm sure you recall the name. He had his posse of cool kids constantly around him. There was Mike, who practiced WWF finishing moves on me. The Undertaker's Tombstone. The Stone Cold Stunner. I grew up loving the WWF, but once this kid turned it into my existential reality, I ceased watching it immediately. Then there was Geoff or Jeff. I was older than him by two years, but he used to kick my ass every day and push me into a berry bush afterwards. I now have a few good friends who love picking and eating wild berries at first sight, but they have no idea what these berries convey to me. Weakness and insecurity. Oh, and how about big Mason. He made up the chant that everyone on the block used to sing when they saw me. Veer-o, Queer-o, Where'd he get his ear-o? What the fuck did this even mean? Yet somehow, this nonsensical saying was something I embraced, like Aladdin's call for Genie, because I knew that beyond the hurt of the call lay the fact that I had a group of boys to hang out with that day. My friends were kids who called me chink. Moving to the Northwest, I heard every other epithet or stereotype for Asian except the word chink, which surprised me. Apparently there were limits to the racial jokes that the Northwest employed. But while in Virginia, I accepted being a chink, laughed along like Sambo (hey, that's me!), and hung out with the chink-callers when they accepted me as a tenth wheel.

My parents didn't help much either. I used to be angry at them for validating my response of internalizing racism. But, I realize like any immigrant trying to get by, they had to survive in this nightmare any way possible. I hated being Chinese though. We would be in Chinese restaurants in Virginia and I would tell them to speak in English. Fucking crazy. Shhh, be quiet; white people never talk this loud. Fuck, Crystal, I'm tearing up again recalling all of this because I'm ashamed. Josh O'Grady used to make fun of me for anything he could conjure up, including living in the worst house in the neighborhood. But because he was popular, I used to imitate him. He had this head nod thing he would do because of his asthmatic condition (if my memory holds up), and I would imitate his head nod gesture thinking it was cool. One evening, his father rings our doorbell. Both my parents answer. His father tells my parents that I was quoting Jewish racial epithets from a novel assigned to us by our English teacher. I believe the book was Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and the epithets, whatever they were, were mild enough to be included in our seventh grade reading curriculum. His family was Jewish. I remember doing this as my only weapon to get back at my predator, and when I do this one thing, I get busted. My parents apologize on my behalf and tell me to apologize to Josh the very next morning at the bus stop. They explain to me that they worked so hard to foster a good relationship with the neighbors, which, by the way, is funny considering that they were never invited to any neighborhood events. But being the obedient kid I was, I apologize to him the very next morning. Asian supermarkets were a rarity in Virginia, and I remember we would get these special brand of Japanese rice crackers that I grew up on only when we visited my hometown of Toronto every few years or so. My parents gave away our remaining stash of Japanese rice crackers to the O'Grady's that next night.

This fucked up mentality of hating myself stayed with me through high school even when the geography changed to the "Asian friendly" Pacific Northwest. I remember during Christmastime of my freshman year of high school, an attractive girl from my French class, who was a junior then, gave me a teddy bear and told me she thought I was cute. I threw the teddy bear back at her and, instead of saying my customary thank you, I ran away from the situation knowing that I was ugly. Girls throughout my middle school in Virginia laughed at me to my face, often spreading rumors about another girl by accusing her of liking me. The ultimate diss. So throughout high school, I didn't ask anyone out and I shut others out. In my senior year high school yearbook, another attractive girl wrote that she had the biggest crush on me during her junior and senior years. And as I read it, I took it as some cruel, malicious joke transported from my past. Today, even as I've overcome a lot of my insecurities and self-deprecating internalizations, aspects from the past continue to haunt me.

We don't know each other, but I hope you get to read all this. You may never have thought about what my middle school experience was like or its extended impact, so here's that perspective. As a middle schooler, kids tend to run with the pack, but you broke from it. I don't know where you are or what you do, but I hope as hell that you still break from the pack and stand up for what's right. I'm all about breaking stereotypes now. Back then, you showed me that not everyone had to be racist in a racist society. Thank you, or rather your middle school self, for being who you were and being defiant in the situation.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are Coaches Necessary? Centralism vs. Democracy in Competitive Sports

As standardized education spreads at a breakneck pace across the nation to anoint a new generation of robotic workers for the digital age, progressives resist with freedom schools and community campaigns against standardized tests and the gutting of public schools and their budgets. To be sure, these fights to restore creativity, critical thinking, the Socratic method of questioning anything and everything, and, in a word, democracy in education, are integral to redefining education in terms of personal growth and learning through experience and debate. Of course, these fights point to the greater irony of America's critiques of East Asian education models being too rigid, fact-based, and formulaic--petty excuses to mask the fact that Asian students (future workers of China, Japan, South Korea, and India) will soon be at the helm of the global economy, and by extension, that Asian capitalism is the new America. All for the purpose to allow American dreamers to continue dreaming sweetly at night.

Like many political revolutionaries, I myself am schooled by Paulo Friere, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). How one is educated is inherently political, he writes, and in a capitalist or colonial society, schools reflect the political agenda of those in power. Students in these societies are likened to a bank in which teachers deposit facts, ideas, and agendas that inhibit creativity and resistance while fostering complacency to an oppressive status quo. Friere flips the script on this traditional banking model of education and advocates for a dialectical education process where students teach teachers and vice versa. As an example, in the context of at-risk youth, it is key for the young to educate the older teachers who likely come from the outside (if not geographically then generationally), for the goal of education is for the youth to empower themselves, control their community, and overcome the system that produces their state of risk in the first place. This can only be done if teachers are willing to be taught and advise as needed, and if students accept the role of empowerment and are willing to learn through experience and struggle. Democracy in the classroom translates to democracy on the streets. Our public schools preach the rhetoric, but deliver authority figures who choke out creativity and breathe in standardization. I'd say it's ironic or hypocritical, but I think the best adjective to describe such contradictions is simply, it's American. In the words of J. Cole, Look at this nation//that's a crooked smile even braces can't straighten.

So if democratizing a classroom and unshackling it from standardization is the ideal, then what of democracy in competitive sports? What if players on a team mutinied against their coach and declared democracy on the floor? Or perhaps more moderately and in direct application of Friere, what if coaching became a mutual process in which athletes also coached the coach?

This summer, I assisted in coaching a high-level AAU boys' basketball squad. At least one player on my team, our center, will be a future D1 college basketball player, and his dominance in games both inside the key and beyond the arc allowed us to compete with talent above our own. Towards the end of the AAU season, immediately after we defeated another high-level AAU team, our head coach (the same high school varsity coach referred here) pulled me aside and snickered, So Veryl, do you think coaches make a difference? For someone who usually hits hard with words, this question was an unusually passive aggressive way to doubly insult my coaching ability and praise his own. Exactly one week prior, I had lost to the same opponent. Our coach was conspicuously absent that game. Actually, we didn't just lose that game, the opponents imposed their will, crushed our spirits, and made us disbelieve in our ability to play the game. We left the court like it was a funeral service, solemn and silent, doing the walk of shame. Recently deceased, Veryl and his basketball team, 2013-2013. Cries were heard from all over the city. How tragic, they were oh so young.

I want to establish, first and foremost, that coaches in any respectable program are the ultimate authority, the final word. Unlike Kanye's delusional mind, coaches are gods in flesh. What coach says, players execute. Fail to do so once in practice, it's a barrage of insults questioning your intelligence. Fail to do so twice in practice or if another player makes the same mistake, the barrage turns into an onslaught. They are pulled out of the drill, someone else gets subbed in who better get it right. If they fail, then the "midget with glasses", Veryl, gets to play and run with the big boys while those triers and not doers sit out the rest of the drill. The failure to execute a play or perform your hardest during a game is another matter. Coach has no qualms about benching star players for extended periods of time or the entire game if they don't transition back on defense or cut to the basket hard. Winning is NOT an individual effort. It doesn't take star players to win if our team outplays, outhustles, and outruns our opponent. If all five players on the floor commit to locking down the paint, pressuring the ball, playing the middle on defense ready to help stop drives, then our offense will flow from our defensive intensity and win us the game. During the regular high school season, we shut down the star future-D1 players in our conference like Zach Lavine and Tucker Haymond because our five guys on the floor stopped them, had their eye on them at all times, not just the one defender 'assigned' to them. If you think the natural conclusion to draw about winning is that it is a team effort, then either I have understated the point of this paragraph or you've been internalizing one too many cliches from an ESPN color commentator. Make no mistake, coaching is the difference and the key to winning.

If players buy into a coach's philosophy--in our program, effort and attitude at all times--and if the coach keeps players honest by rewarding those who execute this philosophy regardless of talent, then the team will upset teams appraised higher by analysts and statisticians who look solely at individual stats and team personnel to determine the outcome of matches. In contrast to our program, which devalues star players and emphasizes team effort, many other programs live and die by their star players' individual performance. This may work against another team with similar minimalist or non-philosophy, but against a team that plays team defense with integrity and intensity, they will often lose because their star players get shut down. And for those star-power driven teams, since offense runs through their stars, when they are shut down, then team offense stagnates. Just look at the Miami Heat's road to the finals this year, and how the Indiana series was so tough for them because Miami ran the majority of plays through one or two individuals, leaving the rest of the team frozen like statues beyond the arc. More importantly, coaches of these superstars tend to give them a carte blanche to shoot themselves out of a slump or to solely play a one way game and not worry about defense. At the State Tournament this year in the Tacoma Dome, I saw the star-endowed teams of Seattle Prep and Lakeside, whose coaches allowed their superstars total control on the court, lose to teams that were more disciplined and better coached.

A coach's personnel decisions are crucial to the game's outcome. Better coached teams are unafraid to sit out their star players when needed because coaches know it's harder to defend a team of five players who move on the floor, set screens for each other, and patiently look for a good shot. The 3A Champions this year, Rainier Beach, defeated Lakeside not only because they played much more cohesively, but equally as important, their superstar, Louisville-commit Shaqquan Aaron, who has a tendency to play loosely on defense, did not play at all during the second half or overtime. I will be in the minority in saying this, but I truly felt that the Miami Heat upset the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA Finals this year. Up 3 games to 2 in a best of 7 series, San Antonio Coach Popovich made unforgivable personnel decisions that cost them the title. Overplaying superstar Manu Ginobli and rising star Danny Green (who started the series with unbelievable three-point shooting but ended the series completely cold) and underplaying Kawhai Leonard and Boris Diaw, role players who were smart and secure with the basketball, especially during the final stretches of the game. Taking out Tim Duncan in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6 who had the size to potentially get a defensive rebound; instead allowing a second-chance opportunity by Miami that led to an unbelievable game-tying shot by Ray Allen. Taking out Tony Parker in final seconds of Game 7 and allowing Manu Ginobli to not only handle the ball, but drive the ball on his weak side, leading to a turnover and basket at the other end that all but closed out the Spurs. Perhaps in the case of San Antonio, without a coach in Games 6 and 7, the players would've decided to keep Parker and Duncan on the floor, thus winning the championship. But, this hypothetical scenario is an exception to the rule that good coaching involves smart substitutions and no loyalties to superstars. Because of their professional distance to players, coaches are ultimately poised to make the tough decisions to bench a star for the greater good of the team.

The aforementioned aspects of coaching--the philosophy and personnel decisions--come second and third to coaching strategy. Games at the highest level are duels between coaches. Players are pawns in a bigger chess match, and when the pawns do not run the play exactly as the coach called out and envisioned, then they are substituted with another on the bench. Some programs are defined by their strategy. Syracuse's 2-3 Zone. VCU's relentless full-court press. But most coaches have dozens of plays in their arsenal and a few aces up their sleeve for guaranteed buckets. They have thought and rethought how to attack certain defenses, how and where to utilize screens to get their best shooter open, and how to stifle an opponent's offense before they get going. Some coaches change defensive formation in the middle of the opponent's same offensive possession. Others change it up after every made basket. But the key is change and adaptation at a moment's notice. The skill and brains required for the task is extremely difficult and requires immediate decision making by an authoritative voice. Additionally, unlike chess players whose pieces from game to game remain the same, coaches have the challenge of creating, tailoring, and ultimately innovating their strategy to best fit their players from season to season. A "timeless, tried-and-true" response to situations created by the opponent, without regard to your own personnel, is not enough of an adaptation to win the duel. In its purest form, when players are executing a coach's strategy perfectly, coaching is art. Watching Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) duel Tom Izzo (Michigan State) is like watching Mozart duel Salieri, Alexandre Cabanel duel Claude Monet, or Biggie duel Pac.

On the subject of duels and strategy, winning in sports is like winning in war. The few moments that are enshrined in leftist history, where popular democratic militias were created such as in the Paris or Shanghai Communes, do not make good case studies for democracy in wartime since these militias were severely shorthanded in size. Nonetheless, without authority in situations of crisis and the ability to make immediate decisions that are enforced by the militia, parity in army size will not make much of a difference in the outcome. Currently, many progressives, in critique of the hierarchical structure that has plagued traditional revolutionary organizations, are making a big push for horizontalism--the dispersing of knowledge and the fostering of leadership among all members. On a sports team, it's ideal to have players understand why they're doing something (i.e. why they run a particular play against a zone defense) and be able to help teammates out when those teammates are clueless. But in times of crisis, in the heat of the moment, it's far more important to have players doing the right thing and being in the right spots even if they don't understand why they're doing it.

The game of basketball is so counter-intuitive to everything for which a political revolutionary stands. And it's so ironic, or to invoke an earlier phrase, so American, that I love basketball so much. If you ever go to a public court at a park and spectate a pick up game, you'll discover pure chaos. It's so ugly that sometimes I don't even recognize that 'basketball' is the game that is being attempted. Even in glorified pick up games featuring NBA players, such as the summer Pro-Am League in Seattle, there is no sense of urgency, intensity, effort, or defense. Players don't run plays and those who believe that they are heroes play selfish hero ball; the other players implicitly consent to extended conditioning sessions where they run up and down the court without touching the ball.

In basketball, structure and organization is beautiful. Even an unpredictable offensive strategy like a motion offense has rules within it, basket cuts that are imperative after each pass, and reactions players make based on reads on the defense. It's undeniable that the beautiful all starts with centralized leadership, the coach, who makes his players understand and respect the system and in turn, become the best players that they can possibly be. But not everything is counter-intuitive. Like all things with a centralized leadership, too much power can be abused and athletes pick up life lessons and perspectives, and not just the sport, from their coach. Some of these problems will be alleviated as society changes through struggle and newer democratic and liberating values are normalized. But in a competitive culture requiring quick planning and quicker action, coaches are as indispensable as the hoop itself.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Jay-Z's Historic Performance at Glastonbury

I'm currently perusing Decoded by Jay-Z, what I would classify as a seminal text in the ever-expanding literature on hip hop history. Reading an insider's perspective from a rap behemoth offers fresh insights on the creative process that I previously hadn't contemplated; how, for example, "a 'dumbed down' record actually forces you to be smarter, to balance art, craft, authenticity, and accessibility" (130). Littered with lyrics to illustrate this point that even songs appealing to the lowest common denominator have multiple layers, it's changed the way I listen to club bangers, Jay-Z, and his latest album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail, perhaps his most hedonistic-themed album to date. Anyways, I digress.

I wanted to share a moment of hip hop history as described by Jay-Z in his book. This moment captures the tension between race and culture. In contrast to the conservatism of other artistic subcultures, Jay-Z embodies the wide and inclusive appeal and reach of hip hop endemic since its roots...since Afrika Bambaata released "Planet Rock" in 1982 and ushered in waves of rockers, wavers, and European tourists from uptown to downtown dance clubs where he and the Soulsonic Force would perform. According to Jeff Chang, "Planet Rock" was "hip-hop's universal invitation, a hypnotic vision of one world under a groove, beyond race, poverty, sociology and geography" (Can't Stop Won't Stop, 172). Here, in a display of uncanny wittiness to open his set, Jay-Z defiantly breaks down stereotypes of what music can and should be played at an English rock festival. Hova not only shows how ridiculous his baiter sounds in his elitism, but also how silly, or rather anachronistic, his music sounds in the 21st century. A historic moment indeed.

In Jay-Z's words:
In 2008 I was invited to play at the Glastonbury Festival in England. I took the gig because it was a chance to knock some doors down for the culture. It's a huge festival, one of the largest outdoor festivals in the world. It started i the seventies and mostly featured rock music, even though the definition of rock music wasn't always clear--what do Massive Attack, Radiohead, the Arctic Monkeys, Bjork, and the Pet Shop Boys really have in common? Well, here's one thing: None of them rap. When it was announced that I'd be headlining Glastonbury, Noel Gallagher of Oasis said, "I'm not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It's wrong." That quote that went around--"I'm not having hip-hop"--said a lot, like he had a veto...
...As planned, I played that show in front of 180,000 people. I stood backstage with my crew and we looked out at the crowd. It wasn't like any other crowd I'd played. There were tens of thousands of people staring up at the stage but it might as well have been a million--bodies covered my entire field of vision. We were under a dark, open sky. Their cheers and chants were like a tidal wave of sound crashing over the stage. It was awesome and a little ominous.
Before I came out, we played a video intro reel about the controversy that included Gallagher's quote that I had "fucking no chance" of pulling off Glastonbury. Then I walked out on stage with an electric guitar hanging around my neck and started singing Oasis's biggest hit, "Wonderwall." It went over big. Then I tore through my set, with my band, a band, by the way, that's as "Rock" as any band in the world. The show was amazing, one of the highlights of my career. It was one of those moments that taught me that there really is no limit to what hip-hop could do, no place that was closed to its power. My purposefully fucked-up version of "Wonderwall" put it back on the charts a decade after it came out, ironically.
The whole sequence felt familiar to me--that same sense of someone putting their hands and weight on me, trying to push me back to the margins. Telling me to be quiet, not to get into the frame of their pristine picture. It's the story of my life and the story of hip-hop. But the beautiful thing at Glastonbury was that when I opened with "Wonderwall," over a hundred thousand voices rose up into that dark sky to join mine. It was a joke, but it was also kind of beautiful. And then when I segued into "99 Problems," a hundred thousand voices rocked the chorus with me. To the crowd, it wasn't rock and rap or a battle of genres--it was music. (163-166)

 The Introductory Video Played before Jay-Z Entered the Stage:

The Opening Minutes to Jay-Z's Performance:

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Our Jackie Robinson

In my two years of coaching high school boys' basketball, I have encountered exactly two Asian players at the varsity level. Last year in the playoffs, when we played against one of them (a starting point guard), our point guard was told to sag off on defense, over-help on defending other players, double the post when needed, and give this Asian player all the space he wanted for a shot. From purely a coaching standpoint, the very thought of leaving a point guard undefended is anathema to the profession. It's like, no, IT IS handing over a free win to your opponent. All this in a loser-go-home, do-or-die, playoff game. For those who don't follow the beautiful game of basketball, the point guard is a team's primary ball handler and decision maker, the quarterback for the team and the coach on the floor. Even if the point guard is not a good jump shooter, you've got to play honest defense on him because 1. any varsity guard can surely take it to the rim for an easy lay up or pass to an open teammate off the drive, but, more importantly, 2. we need to pressure the pass inside and prevent their offense from setting up. Shockingly, our varsity coach's counter-intuitive strategy paid off and by the end of the game, the crowd erupted into a jeering session of Jeremy, Jereemy, Jereeeemy every time their point guard touched the ball. This poor kid was obviously rattled and pressured by our lack of pressure, passing up not only open jump shots but also open lanes for drives. Instead, he quickly passed the ball to a teammate every possession and disappeared from the offense, giving us a de facto five on four defenders' advantage.

That Asian athletes don't get respect from opponents should not surprise anyone. Every time I play pick up basketball with unknown players, I am always the last pick. To put it into perspective, then, making it on a 4A varsity team and get respectable minutes is an extremely rare accomplishment in itself. Prior to last year, asking someone to name a professional Asian basketball player was similar to asking them about any other commodity on the market: Yao Ming and Barbies, both Made in China. Broaden the question out to Asian athletes in any sport and it would sound much like Japanese car imports: Ichiro Suzuki Motors. As successful as these Asian athletes got in North America, even they were the exotic exception to the rule in their respective sports. When their stints were done, those athletes went back home and the athletic floodgate did not open like the brain drain of computer technicians, engineers, and doctors from Asia. For many young Asian Americans, those athletes were glimpses of what our race could achieve when opportunities were given, but also a reminder of the stark reality that those gifts, when offered on the rare occasion, were only to Asians abroad. Those Asians did not struggle in the same way from childhood on against a culture dominated by blacks and whites and a society with expectations for you to become a Model Minority. We were still, to invoke The Dark Knight, looking for our hero, not the hero we deserved, but the one we needed to overcome the initial barrier of racist exclusion against Asian Americans in professional sports. Someone who lived under institutional racism and overcame; someone who went unpicked or undrafted yet broke through; someone who could not escape home after the run was done because home is here. 

February 4, 2012, should be a date that is forever engrained among Asian Americans, for that is the day we got our hero. Our Jackie Robinson. That evening on basketball's biggest stage, at Madison Square Garden, bench warming, soon-to-be-demoted-to-the-D-League, Asian American Jeremy Lin came off the bench with 25 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds to carry the underwhelming New York Knicks, then on a two-game losing streak with an abysmal 9-15 overall record, to victory over the Nets. The next six games, with Lin inserted into the starting lineup and without their injured superstar Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks emerged victorious. And with 136 points in his first five starts, Lin set the NBA record in that category.

I am truly perplexed at some of the reactions I get from Asian Americans regarding Jeremy Lin. Many simply don't care; they are not sports fanatics and give a blase oh, that's great that he made it. Another reaction I commonly hear is he's nothing special for a point guard. He's not as athletic as D. Rose, as smart as Tony Parker, as clutch as Kyrie Irving, or as shot-savvy as Stephen Curry. Jeremy's overrated and commits too many turnovers. All these responses reflect a greater ignorance among Asian Americans towards the racism in not only sports culture, but the system in general. Many Asian Americans buy into the model minority stereotype because unlike other racial stereotypes, it is perceived as positive and endowed with its own perks. They don't realize or care that the stereotype was perpetuated to divide and conquer people of color, to reinvigorate the myth that America was equal, post-racist or colorblind by counteracting the image of militant blacks revolting on the streets with the image of docile Asian immigrants working professional jobs, and that it continues to reinforce a racial hierarchy that maintains capitalism. In other words, many Asian Americans internalize these racist stereotypes about themselves and accept that they are physiologically inferior to other races in order to ascend the corporate ladder and live the American Dream. They don't appreciate the enormity of Jeremy's impossible climb because they never faced what it was like to dedicate one's life to breaking a racist stereotype and being free to do what you love in spite of the odds overwhelmingly stacked against you.

When the system entitles a large proportion of Asian Americans to maintain its racist division of labor, it's difficult to view Jeremy Lin as our Jackie Robinson. But his very presence on the floor challenges social roles and racist economics in general. More specifically, his presence challenges the racism of professional sports, the social Darwinist assumptions of the Asian body, and the complacency and softness of Asians. He represents the spirit of Asians that is currently suppressed under the system, a spirit of revolt both in mind and body, a spirit of toughness, intensity, and leadership both on the court and on the streets. He is not the hero we deserve, but the one we desperately need when so many of us willingly play the assigned role.


The first time I heard of Jeremy Lin was through the New York Times. Over the course of the last NBA season and a half, I've experienced with Lin what many do in the course of an extended romantic relationship. The sheer thrill of the encounter; love at first sight. I remember e-mailing the Times article from my work computer to personal account, then printing out a dozen copies or so to keep and hand out immediately upon returning home. The honeymoon period. For the remainder of the 2012 season, I religiously followed Jeremy and the Knicks, going Linsane in the membrane every time he set foot on the floor. The discovery of faults in the other; the disappointment and let down in that it didn't turn out as expected. After being awarded an unspeakable three-year, $25 million contract by Houston for his performance over just 26 games as a Knick, expectations were sky high but Jeremy's first full season in the league ultimately underwhelmed. The break up. Towards the end of the season, I consciously stopped defending Jeremy to all my players whom I coached who had been attacking him all season long. I accepted the inevitable; his numbers were down, his effort was inconsistent, and my admiration of him suddenly died. Reevaluating the relationship from afar and getting back together again. Linsanity may not happen again and Jeremy may not currently be among the top starting point guards, but this past season was only his first full season. And as I will mention in the following paragraph, he played on a team that devalued and disrespected his best assets. Already with smarts beyond his years, Jeremy has a remarkably high potential and will only learn from his mistakes, but unlike those players, he will also have to deal with the racism of the league and the pressure of being a historic figure, the first Asian American in the NBA.

As a warning to my non-basketball readers, this section of the post is technical. I do not think that the Houston Rockets is a good fit for Jeremy. He is devalued by the coaching staff, and this has translated to his teammates not trusting him with the ball down the stretch of the season despite being open on the perimeter. The Rockets offense primarily runs through James Harden, a former Sixth Man of the Year and who emerged as a superstar last season for the Rockets. The most common play is this: Jeremy would take the ball up court and hand it off to James Harden or Chandler Parsons, who will come off a high pick and roll with Omer Asik. Jeremy will then rotate to the weakside corner and sit there for the remainder of the offensive possession. Once in a while, he will get the ball but he is the fourth or fifth option for scoring. In short, the Rockets don't run offense through a point guard, even though James Harden actually led the league in turnovers last season. It appears as if Jeremy were expendable to the Rockets' coaching staff, and towards the end of the season, even though Jeremy started games, he barely played second halves and frequently didn't play in the fourth quarter at all, despite having strong starts. This is all the more confusing because Jeremy played more aggressively as the season waned, transporting fans back to the excitement of Linsanity, and Lin shot an impressive 40% from three-point range in his last 37 games. His usage rate was ranked 38th among point guards, which situated him along backup point guards in terms of minutes per game. Despite this, he averaged 13 points and 6 assists a game, which are average numbers for starting point guards. Ironically, when James Harden was out on illness or injury, the coaches reverted back to point guard play and leaned on Jeremy, who averaged 22 points and 7 assists in those games, including a 38-point performance against the San Antonio Spurs. This is a double standard to which many Asian Americans relate. You are invisible to us unless we are shorthanded and you are needed. You better rise to the occasion in these rare opportunities or be forever forgotten.

When Linsanity happened in New York, Jeremy was the primary ball handler and, like smart point guards, excelled at involving his teammates on offense. In his first week of playing with Jeremy, Tyson Chandler's numbers climbed up to 14 points and 9 rebounds. Steve Novak became a three-point sensation overnight after Jeremy's aggressive drives would pull in help defenders, leaving Novak open for the three-point shot from a Lin dish. Defensively, during the Linsanity stretch, the Knicks climbed up to #1 in both PPG and FG% allowed. Having an unselfish teammate to run the point and allowing everyone opportunities to score on offense encouraged and enabled everyone to play their hardest as a team defensively.

With Dwight Howard coming to Houston next season, Jeremy will likely see less of the ball. D12's teammate this past season, Steve Nash, claimed that Howard did not want to run the pick and roll. Considering that Houston Coach Kevin McHale was an elite center, Houston may mix more post up play for Howard, which could leave Jeremy stacked on an overloaded weakside corner as the last option for scoring. Finally, I'm reading a plethora of articles advocating that Patrick Beverly, who closed many of the games last season, should start over Jeremy. Beverly is not an offensive threat to opponents, but considering that Jeremy was not seen as or assigned by his coaches the playmaker role, it's conceivable that Beverly gets the nod as the starter.

Though he possesses both, Jeremy is not our hero because of his skill or ability. It is the continual challenge he faces, the reminder to all Asian Americans that despite accomplishing something, nothing is guaranteed for the future. Having proven himself in New York, he signs with Houston only to find his talents misused and unappreciated. Now, the league devalues him and he is stuck on the same team where he must struggle to maintain minutes, let alone the starting position. He is a reminder to Asian Americans that though many of us may have it good, our social roles are confined. When we challenge it, as Jeremy does, we must work ten times harder than the next person whose skin color equates to a professional or social advantage. We cannot afford to have an off day in performance without a barrage of criticism or depreciation in status. Whenever we see how hard Jeremy works on the floor, the plays where he sacrifices his body for a defensive charge call, and the hard falls that frequently accompany his flights in the air while making a contested layup, we should know that he's doing it for us, for our future generations, to allow us to be perceived as something other than a cookie cutter model minority. And that's why I am humbled and smile whenever someone who plays me in basketball calls me after my hero, our Jackie Robinson, Jeremy Lin.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Racist Anti-Racist

Oxymorons. Gotta love them. I strive to become one. Oxymorons are about defying stereotypes, turning conventions upside down, proudly flaunting contradictions, and being human. The line between an oxymoron and a moron is day and night, red pill and blue; oxymorons laugh at the face of criticism and judgment, morons are by the book, seek order and fit in.

At first glance, there is nothing inherently oxymoronic about sports culture. The couple years before coaching, I spent my time exclusively around political leftists and organizing circles, debating the merits of anarchism versus Marxism or united front versus popular front, all the while building organizations to fight against *insert fucked up issue here* (citywide budget cuts, workplace oppression, illegal detention centers, police brutality). Like reading a line from a script by a revolutionary playwright, personal introductions ran like I'm anti-racist, third world feminist, for workers' liberation, for democracy from below...oh yeah, did I mention that I'm also for queer and trans liberation, how silly of me to forget. As the months went by and I became involved in new campaigns, it seemed like I would add more adjectives in my self-descriptive introductions. It was preaching to the choir, or to those new or apart from the scene, what the fuck? I knew more about Huey Newton and Malcolm X than Michael Jordan and Lebron James. The idea of sports culture repulsed me to my core. Everything about the culture went against my 'revolutionary ascetic': the elitism of jocks, the hierarchical militarism of coaching, the homophobia, the machismo, the privilege. This culture created the bullies who drove me suicidal and depressed in my younger years.

Naturally then, when I joined the coaching staff of a high school basketball program, these stereotypes rang true. Like a lone ship battling against Poseidon's vicious storm, I felt like having to navigate myself in a sea of 'morons'. The heaviest anchor weighing me down was the racism that I both saw and felt. The school I work at is situated in the North End of Seattle, economically better off than Central and South Seattle. According to Wikipedia, 60% of the school is white and only 9% black. On the ground, the ratio of whites to blacks feels even more pronounced. The basketball program reflected these demographics.

The first impressions I got from the head varsity coach didn't exactly assuage my feeling. With film favorites like Team America and Scary Movie, the man is crude humor epitomized. Apart from comics by profession, this coach packs more humor line-by-line than Slim Shady when he is not instructing. The catch is, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, there are no bounds for him, and, race is, when I'm around, a go-to topic of his. All my facial features, from mustache to eyes, have been subject to the laughs of all players. When he needs a computation of number of hours that players should be conditioning per week, I'm the go-to guy during practice. Aren't you Asians supposed to be good at these things? During one of our pregame talk sessions, while waiting for our varsity guys to gather around, he drew a penis to the side of the white board. Spotting it, one of the players asked him what the drawing was. He said it was an amplified projection of my penis, but he needed a magnifying glass to view it because it was so small. No limits for him, but he is funny and, to his credit, indiscriminate on his targets. He'll make fun of little kids at Hoop Camp to their face as he will his newly born daughter. I expect you guys to deny all penetration in the paint, like I will deny penetration to my daughter when she's all grown up on her prom night. Who the fuck really says this? Think the classic Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction and The Boondocks cast as Coach Carter and you'll get a sense of who this guy appears to be on the surface. Suffice it to say, my anti-racist proclivity, hardened through the previous couple years of organizing, made me feel extremely uncomfortable around him and reinforced the 'moronic' one-dimensional culture of sports that intimidated and drew me away.

Actions speak louder than words. I have always heard and used this adage in the context of a person who walks the talk and practices what they believe. Activists who talk the talk but fail to walk are disdained as 'armchair revolutionaries' or worse, 'mactivists' who mistake picking up women for organizing with them. Pastors frequently remind congregations that faith without actions is dead. There's a reason why organizers and pastors repeat this theme. The 'cause' requires intense dedication but the practitioners often meander, setting limits to their walk (as long as it doesn't involve too much of my money or time). So it came as a complete shock when I discovered that the principle was also true when words ran entirely contrary to one's actions. To knowingly say one thing, but to do another. A true oxymoron.

And that is exactly what the head varsity coach is. An oxymoron. A walking contradiction. For under the veneer of a frat boy-who-never-aged racist jokester was an anti-racist man in practice. Coaching basketball has been the most challenging activity of my life. Last year, my first, was the most difficult. Since I had minimal exposure to the game of basketball prior to coaching, I underwent a literal baptism under fire. The parents were brutal. One in particular would get other parents rallying against me during games, snickering at me and giving me dirty looks whenever opponents scored. Others would, in a typical Seattlelite fashion, passive aggressively give me looks, offer to volunteer their coaching experience, and/or fail to acknowledge me altogether. After an away game in which we were blown out by the opponent, the parent refused to allow their son to ride home on the team bus (a mandatory policy), bluntly telling me that I needed to learn how to score against that particular zone defense that shut us down before their child should have me as their coach. A few nights later, the parent went directly to the varsity coach (whom I was beside at the time) and told him that I should not be a coach in a reputable boys' basketball program, I had no experience, I was a babysitter when the job required a leader, and that all I did was yell at the kids without purpose. I'll never forget the coach's response. Here's the deal. When you say that Veryl's doing a poor job, you're saying that I'm doing a poor job. Is that what you're saying to me, m'aam? Because that's what I'm hearing. That shut the parent up for the rest of the season and prompted them to join the passive aggressive jeering section of the audience.

This one experience was NOT an anomaly. Parents at the varsity level questioned his ability to run a successful basketball program because of my hiring. His job was on the line and the school administration was involved. I still don't fully understand why I was offered the coaching position, and, like the parents' attitudes last year, to this day I think it was a crazy hire. Him and I recently conversed about this and he told me, I don't say this to many people, but Veryl, you're the type of guy I would lose my job over. I don't give a shit what others think. I know what I'm doing. I'm all about effort and attitude, and you've got those both.

In my time organizing with anti-racists, the quality guys who walked the talk were the ones who listened to me and trained me to be a leader. It was important to break the perception of the model minority, and I credit them for my transformation from a docile yes-man to a free-thinking public speaker. This coach has done no less. In a profession dominated by anything but Asian, he stood alone defending me against valid complaints and redirecting my focus from the haters to the learning process and the growth. He inspired confidence in me, believed in my character and potential instead of judging my skin color, saw through and willingly broke the stereotypical projection to which I actually embodied having no athletics experience, and in the process, allowed me to experience and achieve something I had never even dreamed of doing. I absolutely love the game.

Some morons turn out to be oxymorons. Perhaps they never were, and I was the moron in thinking so. This year has been a markedly different experience, with many of last year's crop of parents coming around and supporting me. As I become a better coach, I hope to shatter more stereotypes among athletes, parents, and others I meet. It is the life force of an oxymoron. But I will never forget the racist anti-racist who started it all.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

First Impressions

Growing up, I was taught to 'Never judge a book by its cover.' I bought into my parents' idealism, rooted in the Christian principle that the big G-O-D up there judged a person on the inside. Through my elementary school years, I never wore Nikes, Reeboks, or Jordans. I wore turtle necks and wool sweaters during the cold season, and multicolored boxer-like short shorts when it was hot. I remember looking in the mirror before school one morning at my Asian hair, haphazardly stuck up on the back of my head (a feature that defines my mornings to this day), complaining to my mom about how ugly and disoriented it made me look. But mom, other boys my age had straight hair. I naively believed her when she told me that my hair would straighten out by the time I went to school. I didn't get my first pair of Nikes until 7th grade, and even then, they were the $19.99 clearanced ones from JC Penny's. For the next few days, I proudly wore the brand with a huge grin on my face, as it was leaps and bounds ahead of the Payless shoes I had previously worn, until my classmates made fun of them during PE. Nice girl shoes, chink. They were purple with a flowerly design on the heel. My attempt to assimilate, as it were, miserably failed. Someone had to make the next uncoolest kid at school seem cool--You're welcome, Everett.

I'm not sure why I applied that principle to my life for as long as I did. Looking back, I was always judged by my skin color before I even uttered a single word. Because no one really listened to me, I didn't think my words mattered. I moved to Virginia Beach exactly one day before middle school started. During the first day of school, I sat alone way up in the nosebleed section during a pep assembly. Little did I know that I would be the overture to the assembly, but before the formal festivities began, a group of boys approached me, taunting me before pushing me around. Fucking chink, youse go backa to China. Ching chongy ching chong. That was the second time I cried in public, and right on cue, kids from the lower sections of the bleacher turned their heads and laughed. I remember looking at a teacher in the lower section, telekinetically crying for help, only to see a chuckle on her face. I got my ass kicked for the first time later that afternoon.

High school in the Pacific Northwest wasn't substantively different. By the time we're full-fledged adolescents, stereotypes predominantly influence how one perceives you. It became second-nature to me to live by the stereotype. In hindsight, it was the safe option, the survivalist option, not to defy it and to use it to my advantage. I got straight A's, I won the International Baccalaureate student award, I excelled in piano and violin, and I mostly kept to myself. I was the Model Minority.

Over the last few years, I've been learning to challenge and actively smash the model minority myth. I don't want to be a robot defined by the creation of a racist society. I don't want to be constrained by a label and denied opportunities to experience, to grow, to find out what I can achieve and who I could be. That is the first impression I want to leave after each new encounter.

Three years ago, I had never been around sports as a spectator, let alone playing it, but now, I coach a couple 4A high school sports. I am the only Asian who coaches boys' basketball in the conference. It's been a crazy ride from there to here and I've got quite a few stories to tell and reflections to impart.

I have never written a blog before (although I've contributed quite a few entries for other blogs), but lately I find myself drowned in many thoughts with so much to say. To all who stumble along my blog, greetings and much gratitude. This will be a regular part of my life, so I look forward to conversations to come and new people to meet.